From education to employment

‘Labour must straddle the education divide to achieve victory’


New research shows the extent to which Labour’s hopes of achieving power depends on overcoming recent divisions between school-leavers and graduates.

In a paper published today by the Social Market Foundation (a cross-party think tank), leading political scientist Professor Rob Ford presents new analysis of Britain’s education divide and what it means for the coming general election. It shows that education is now one of the strongest predictors of vote choice and political values.

The divide is relatively recent, Prof Ford shows, having opened up since the 2016 Brexit referendum. In 2014, graduates and school-leavers were as likely to vote for Labour or Conservatives. However, Labour now does much better with university graduates and the Conservatives’ base has shifted towards those with GCSE qualifications or less.

This poses electoral challenges for all major parties. For the Conservatives to retain power, they can scarcely afford to lose seats in the ‘red wall’ where school leavers are dominant but declining in numbers, whilst also having to stem losses in ‘blue wall’ seats where graduates who now shun the party are the largest group. By contrast, for Labour to secure a Commons majority, they must gain at least 120 seats – and will have to expand their coalition to include more school leavers, who are overrepresented in the constituencies Labour has lost to the Conservatives since 2015 and needs to win back.

With the political agenda currently dominated by economic issues – like the cost-of-living – that don’t divide people as strongly on educational lines, politicians may have an easier job bringing both sides together. However, there are still big issues on the agenda which divide voters deeply by education, including immigration and the environment. More broadly, university graduates express much more liberal values while school leavers tend to hold authoritarian views – value orientations which inform a wide variety of political beliefs.

School leavers are declining rapidly as a share of the electorate everywhere, with particularly steep declines in many competitive ‘red wall’ seats. Graduate shares are growing fastest in seats in and around London, and a growing swathe of ‘blue wall’ seats in the London commuter belt now have graduate majorities.

Other key findings include:

  • There were only 26 seats where graduates outnumbered school leavers by more than 10% in 2011. By 2031, on current trends, there will be 249 seats where graduates dominate. The numbers will continue rising.
  • The education divide is also a generational divide. Graduates outnumber school leavers among those aged under 50. School leavers are the dominant group among pensioners.
  • Media and political discussion of small boats crossing the English Channel, has mainly mobilised school leavers, more than 10% of whom have named it as a top priority in recent waves. Meanwhile, less than 1 in 20 graduates have raised immigration as a top priority in recent waves. The environment is the mirror image to immigration, mobilising graduates with strong views on climate change while attracting little interest from school leavers.
  • There are no seats where school leavers have a share above 60%, and only a few clusters where school leavers are a majority. The largest concentrations of graduates come in London and in the large home counties commuter belt around it, with other clusters near large universities.

Rob Ford, Professor at The University of Manchester and Senior Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, said:
“The education divide is here to stay, with implications for all the political parties. Our new report underlines how education has become a central dividing line in politics, second only to age as a predictor of voters’ choices. All parties face new challenges from an electoral landscape being reshaped by demographic change, and neither Labour nor the Conservatives can hope to win the next general election without bridging the deep divide between graduates and school leavers, two groups with distinct identities and values who have been at loggerheads ever since the EU referendum.”

Professor Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe, said:

“Our politics are changing. Recent electoral volatility can be put down to a number of factors. One of these is the emergence of new fault lines such as the education divide identified so clearly in this excellent report. This has significant electoral implications going forward, as Professor Ford clearly argues. It also has implications for perceptions of, and approaches to, higher education.”

Dr Aveek Bhattacharya, Director of the Social Market Foundation, said:

“As this research shows, the education divide has emerged rapidly to become one of the most significant electoral phenomena of recent times. That is of vital importance to political strategists seeking to win elections. But the bigger challenge is for the politicians that have to bring graduates and school-leavers together, help them to treat one another with respect and unite them in shared national project. The education divide must be healed, not just exploited.”

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